YAMBA'S Nathan Rheinberger has been awarded an Australian Bravery Decoration, announced today by Governor-General Quentin Bryce.
The 20-year-old hero was just 16 when he rescued two female students off Turners Beach, Yamba, in February 2009; his actions gaining him a Commendation for Brave Conduct.
Recalling the rescue, Mr Rheinberger said at the time he was heading in from a surf when he spotted two swimmers caught in a rip.
"I didn't really think about it, I just paddled out," Mr Rheinberger told The Daily Examiner afterwards.
With no previous life- saving experience, the young surfer said he just followed his instincts.
When he reached the swimmers he asked them who was feeling the worse, thinking he would help one ashore and then return for the other.
"But they both looked at me at the same time and I knew they were both in trouble," he said.
"One was as white as a ghost and the other was going under the water.
"I wasn't sure what to do, but I knew I couldn't leave one of them behind because they were both in shock."
Fighting the crashing waves and strong current, Nathan managed to pull one girl onto his surfboard.
He then held onto the back of the board and supported the other girl under his free arm.
Out of breath and still in the rip, Nathan's leg began to cramp but he pushed through the pain and kept manoeuvring them across the rip, then towards the beach.
Finally in shallow water Nathan's friend, Tim Horan, helped to pull the girls ashore.
Three-and-a-half years later, Mr Rheinberger said he was both shocked and stoked to receive a letter from Ms Bryce notifying him of the award.
"It came out of the blue. I definitely was not expecting it," he said, adding he had no idea who nominated him.
"I'm pretty happy with it though, it's nice to receive the recognition."
Now employed part-time as a bartender at Yamba Bowling Club, Mr Rheinberger still enjoys surfing and said he and a mate had pulled a couple of young boys out from the same rip.
"They were both probably about six years old and were just beginning to get into trouble," he said.
Mr Rheinberger said he thought more signs around the rock wall might help provide better warning to swimmers about the dangerous rip, used by surfers to access the back break.
"People need to be aware that the rip runs alongside the rocks and they can easily get dragged out."
This year marks the 37th anniversary of the Australian honours system, which since its establishment has grown in prestige to represent the highest level of recognition that can be accorded for attainment of outstanding achievement and service in national life.
Ms Bryce said today's announcement recognised the heroic actions of those among us who had placed the safety and lives of others before their own.
"We are privileged to have such role models in our society and it is an honour to be able to recognise their acts of selfless bravery and thank them publicly for their brave actions," Ms Bryce said.
There are four levels of bravery awards to recognise the actions of individuals and a separate group award (established in 1990) to recognise acts of bravery by a number of persons working in concert.
These awards are the Cross of Valour, the Star of Courage, the Bravery Medal, the Commendation for Brave Conduct, and the Group Bravery Citation.
Anyone may nominate any other person for the award of the Australian Bravery Decoration. Nominations are considered by the Australian Bravery Decorations Council.
For more information about Australian Bravery Awards see www.itsanhonour.gov.au.